Angela Ruggiero has an impressive resume, on or off the ice. The Hockey Hall of Famer helped bring home gold for the US in 1998 at the first-ever women’s hockey event at the Olympics, then medaled three more times in subsequent games. She played at the national level for a record-breaking 16 years before attending Harvard Business School and taking on positions on sports boards, including the executive committee of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and as Chief Strategy Officer in Los Angeles’ winning bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Now, Ruggiero is assembling a new team for her startup, the Sports Innovation Lab, which helps clients and partners such as Google, Verizon, and the NBA navigate the intersection of sports and technology. Based in Boston at WeWork 200 Portland, Ruggiero shared which hockey skills help her as an entrepreneur and what she’ll be looking out for at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

What did it feel like to win Olympic Gold?

It’s a pretty amazing feeling. To actualize your dreams in any capacity is amazing. We’d won world championships before, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that winning at the Olympics was so much bigger than myself, my team, my sport, my country. When you’re in the Olympics, you inspire people you’ve never met. They’re proud of you or sign up for hockey the next day.

[As an athlete,] you’re just focused on your sport, but there are all these bigger implications. We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of the gold medal, and that was the first time women’s hockey was in the Olympics. Having women on a visible platform in sports sends a strong message to society.

Angela Ruggiero speaks at the 2017 Sports Business Awards in New York City.

What are your advantages from being an elite athlete that you harness in your work today?

Being a team player is first. I’m a big believer in the team. Everyone has different responsibilities, but everyone’s important. Having direction and purpose is super important in people’s lives. In business, trying to define that is important.

I competed 16 years at the national level, more than any other player, which is something I’m proud of. To stay at that level required discipline but also a lot of introspection, being realistic about strengths and weaknesses. It’s such a great analogy for business.

“I competed 16 years at the national level. To stay at that level required discipline but also a lot of introspection.”

How did you make the leap from athlete to entrepreneur?

One of the reasons I started the Sports Innovation Lab was all the experience I had on the sports organization boards, including the IOC. I was also the Chief Strategy Officer for the Los Angeles 2024 bid, which we won in September.

My Co-founder Josh Walker having a background at [leading tech advisory firm] Forrester Research and me having a background in the sports industry, we were figuring out what value we wanted to give to clients, and that formed what we did.

Tech is disrupting sports. We describe ourselves as technology-powered services focused on the intersection of sports and tech. We use our tech to quickly understand the market. It aggregates the info that no single analyst can do, constantly pulling different data streams and in real time. We’re trying to do a Forrester inside sports, using software to answer questions we get from clients.

[For example,] as leagues are coming up with wearable strategies, they want to know which one should they think about using. Our software can determine what these companies can and can’t do, whether you’re making a strategic investment or recommendations to players in the league.

Besides wearables, what are the new trends shaping the future of sports?

[The big trends we’re looking at are] smart venues, immersive media, new ways to watch sports outside of linear TV, and next-generation sponsorship, where technology is allowing fans to engage in new ways.

Angela Ruggiero played ice hockey at the national level for 16 years.

How are you building your team?

It starts with my relationship with my co-founder and having an enormous amount of trust and respect for him and leveraging him. Then as we set out with our plan, we’re trying to find people that share our values, some of the intangibles. It comes down to experience and a thorough vetting process.

We have a smaller team relative to what we’re doing—12 full time, some part-time, some interns. We put on a massive show at CES [the Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas] to create the global destination for sports technology. [At CES,] a lot of people couldn’t believe how small we are. But it’s a testament to our team: Everyone’s willing to pitch in and be flexible because it will take everyone to be successful.

Everyone’s willing to pitch in and be flexible because it will take everyone to be successful.

You’re creating a lab at WeWork 200 Portland where different companies working on similar topics in sports tech can come work in the same space. What inspired that?

At CES you feel energy, you meet people, you feel energized. We want that same feeling year-round with our Sports Innovation Lab, [which will bring together] emerging companies as well as established brands who want to live and breathe innovation. We think partnerships and collaborations could come from working alongside each other.

We have 75 desks available and over 3,000 companies in our database, and that’s just technology companies. That’s not every global sponsor. The market is huge for who we’re thinking about bringing into this space. Sports tech is super broad—it’s all the media companies, all the venues, all the sponsors interacting in digital ways. Seventy-five is tiny. We should be in London, New York, Beijing, Paris.

What feelings come up when you watch Olympic hockey games now?

I’ll be there at the games in Pyeongchang as part of the exec board of the IOC. Part of my job is to give medals, and my name’s in the hat for the hockey games. I’m nostalgic but super proud of the young women and men competing at the Olympic Games.

I’ll also be on the ground talking with sponsors and broadcasters and athletes—all the constituents who leverage technology—and listening to how they’re using it. I’ll put together some live streaming discussions for members at the lab in Boston to talk about what I’m seeing in the games. My first hat is the IOC hat, but I’ll make sure I’m taking notes and reporting back on what I’m seeing. I’ll nerd out a bit and study what tech is going on.

 

Photos courtesy of Sports Innovation Lab.

“Ten years ago most people here did not know what this brown paste was,” says Anthony Brahimsha of the chickpea dip that is now nearly ubiquitous on menus in the U.S..

Born to Syrian parents, Brahimsha knew that hummus in the Middle East is much better than that found in American grocery stores. With the help of Mike McCloskey, owner of Select Milk Producers, the sixth largest dairy cooperative in the country, he developed a hummus called Prommus that is higher in protein –– three times that of other dips. It preserves the traditional flavor by using cold pressure, rather than heat, in the kitchen.

“What Halo Top is to ice cream and Chobani is to yogurt, we are to hummus,” Brahimsha says, by way of explaining that Prommus is also changing the industry.

The company name is a combination of the words “protein” and “hummus,” but is also a play on the word “promise.” With 1 percent of sales benefitting the World Food Program to fight global hunger, Brahimsha hopes that the product can have a significant effect on ending hunger and making nutritious foods available wherever they are needed.

Prommus cofounder Anthony Brahimsha, who has spent a lot of time on humanitarian missions, believes his hummus could help feed the world.

While the initial idea was born out of his humanitarian work in refugee camps along the Turkish/Syrian border, Brahimsha has even bigger dreams. The world needs to find more ways to make nutritious foods for people who are going hungry, and he thinks Prommus and its innovative production process are part of the solution. Two patents are currently pending.

The company’s four varieties (original, red pepper, olive, and avocado) are sold in the Midwest, primarily in Illinois and Michigan. These flavors were taste-tested by Brahimsha’s fellow members at Chicago’s WeWork River North, a community that he says has been invaluable to the startup.

“There are a lot of co-working spaces, but not everywhere is a community of social entrepreneurs who are rooting for their peers,” he says.

A winner in the business venture category at the Nashville Creator Awards, he says he’ll be able to start the next stage of expansion for his company, primarily by adding staff.

“As soon as you win this award, all the blood sweat and tears that you put into the company comes together,” he says. “Everything that you have been doing, the people that were with you along the way, finally, it feels like an affirmation that you were doing the right thing.”

 

Melanie Faye grew up in Nashville, but she doesn’t credit Music City with her success. She credits Guitar Hero. Yes, that Guitar Hero, the video game that allows players to mimic the sounds and moves of their favorite stars. For Faye, it was Michael Jackson.

“I don’t think growing up in Nashville introduced me to guitar players,” Faye says. “My parents were chemists. I was not able to go to bars and see local shows. Guitar Hero introduced me to all this music I was not exposed to. Guitar Hero looked really cool. It made me feel empowered.”

So, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Faye, now 20, has found fame via YouTube. After dropping out of college three semesters in to pursue her music career, Faye posted videos of herself sitting in her bedroom and playing covers of John Mayer and Mariah Carey.

“Guitar Hero introduced me to all this music I was not exposed to,” says Melanie Faye. “Guitar Hero looked really cool. It made me feel empowered.”

She also used the platform to debut some of her original work, which she describes as a mixture of R&B, hip hop, and pop. Her voice, serious guitar-playing chops, and friendly demeanor propelled those videos to more than 10 million views. She was so popular that the guitar company Fender tapped her to demo a new line of the instrument.

“I thought, ‘This is it! I’m viral. I made it!’ But it does not work that way,” she says. Faye makes ends meet by working at a local doughnut shop and teaches guitar. She also keeps working on her music the old-fashioned way, having been tapped to be the opening act for musicians like Noname and Mac Demarco. Her most recent gig was at the Nashville Creator Awards.

She is working on her first album, which she hopes will be out by the year’s end. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Faye has been working on Homophone for years.

“If I had known it was going to take this long,” she says, “I wouldn’t have told people it was going to be out soon.”

Faye is also working to relieve the jitters that come with performing live, rather than in front of a camera. A recent show at the Hollywood Palladium was a game changer.

“I typically am really shy and inhibited on stage. But I felt so much support and positive energy, I just let loose,” she remembers. “I think to an extent you just have to have fake confidence at first. I walked up and had a confident demeanor and once I heard crowd cheering, then I was confident.”

“It happens overnight,” Maria Vertkin says. “An immigrant moves to the U.S. and goes from being a surgeon to washing toilets.”

College degrees and professional experience from their home country don’t always mean as much as they should when an immigrant starts a new life abroad, says Vertkin. She knows from experience: She spent her childhood in Russia and Israel before immigrating to the United States. But she realized that they have one thing that will always be of use to them: their language skills.

“It doesn’t make sense if you have something as valuable as a second language to not use it,” says Vertkin, who speaks English, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Vertkin, a Boston-based social worker, wanted to help train women to use their multilingual skills to their advantage. She saw a need that they could fill in the medical field. Hospitals in Massachusetts struggled to find interpreters for their patients who aren’t native English speakers. Without interpreters, expensive and even potentially fatal medical errors are possible.

A Found in Translation graduate shows off her diploma.

“The jobs are plentiful and the demographics are shifting,” says Vertkin. “Not only do they serve the local population, but medical tourists come from other countries and they need interpreters.”

The idea was a hit with the judges of WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards. Found in Translation took home a $72,000 prize in the nonprofit category.

In 2011, Vertkin started Found in Translation to help homeless and low-income women achieve economic security by making their language skills an asset, rather than a liability. Within a few weeks of announcing the first class, she had 200 applications.

The nonprofit offers medical interpreter certificate training as well as other interpreter programs. And the training includes more than the core curriculum — childcare, transportation, job placement, and access to mentors for professional development are also part of the program.

The 186 graduates of Found in Translation classes between 2012 and 2017 earned approximately $1.86 million cumulatively more per year than they did before enrollment. That’s about $10,000 more per person annually. She says that if she wins in the nonprofit category at the Nashville Creator Awards, she can expand the program.

Classes currently take place in Boston, where Vertkin estimates they could easily double in size with the right funding. Every city in the U.S., she says, has the potential for success with Found in Translation.

“There is opportunity and need and we are connecting them,” Vertkin says. “The biggest risk is for employers not hiring multilingual employees.”

If Janett Liriano has her way, you won’t be using your FitBit much longer.

Liriano is CEO of Loomia, a New York-based firm at the intersection of tech and fashion. The company creates “intelligent drapeable circuits” that are soft enough to be embedded into textiles and can be safely washed and dried. Instead of wearing a step tracker on your wrist, it could be embedded into your running shoes.

That’s just the beginning of what these circuits can do. Those shoes might not just track your steps, but can also measure the pressure on your feet, giving you information on how you should adjust your gait. They might heat up and keep your feet warm in winter. And a light might keep you safer on a nighttime jog.

Loomia’s CEO Janett Liriano and founder Maddy Maxey

Liriano has two patents for her product and others in the pipeline for the smart fabric-enabling circuits. Her team is working with more than 80 brands on how they can integrate the smart technology into their designs. The current emphasis is on clothing, but the flexibility of the circuit opens the door to other products in the future.

“We are category agnostic,” Liriano says. “If you can make a washable circuit, you can put it on the floor. You can put it in wallpaper.”

Liriano, who took home third place in the business ventures category at the Nashville Creator Awards, sees potential in fields ranging from medicine to transportation.

Not only can Loomia transform the ways smart devices are used, it can also change what happens to all that data once it is collected. The company is looking at ways that consumers can sell their data to interested parties — or choose not to share it.

Liriano, a “born-and-bred New Yorker,” thinks the city is the right place for the firm. It’s one of the country’s great fashion hubs, but it also has a strong startup scene.

New Yorkers are inherently scrappy and resourceful,” she says. “For a business that is not super capitalized, that’s a good network. We are hard-core hustlers.”